PuSh Play Episode 3: “PLI” Transcript

Listen to the podcast episode here.

Gabrielle [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to PuSh Play, a PuSh Festival podcast featuring conversations with artists who are pushing boundaries and playing with form. I’m Gabrielle Martin, PuSh’s director of programming. And today’s episode highlights a different kind of strength in the context of circus. I’m speaking with Inbal Ben Haim, who created the concept, directed and performs in Pli. Pli is being presented at the PuSh Festival February 2nd to 3rd, 2024. Between flesh and raw material, the ground and the air in Pli, we dive into a landscape that is continually built, torn down and rebuilt. Layer by layer, the body and the paper travel together in a fragment of our changing world. Inbar blends circus, dance, theatre, improvisation and visual arts to create her own form of poetic expression. The call of heights and creating with her body led her to specialise first in the static trapeze, then the rich minimalism of the aerial rope. In 2011, she left Israel to follow her artistic path in France, training at the Centre National des Arts du Cirques. I’m excited for you to hear a discussion that highlights her unique interdisciplinary approach. Here is my conversation with Inbal. I just want to start by acknowledging that I am here on the ancestral unceded traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples, the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh. It’s an absolute privilege to be here as a settler. And I am speaking with you Inbal and where are you?

Inbal [00:01:30] Hey. So I’m really happy to have this contact for this talk. At the moment I’m in Paros, which is a Greek island, but actually my home base is in the south of France and my origins comes from Israel. So as you can see, as many circus artists, we are a little bit all over.

Gabrielle [00:01:53] I’m sure that that also informs your practice. And you have a very rich interdisciplinary practice with many sources of inspiration. And I’m going to get right into asking you about that and about how you approach Pli. So you describe yourself as a circus artist whose work creates strong connections between the intimate and the spectacular. And when I saw your work for the first time, I was struck by how the spectacular moments unfold through a quiet exploration of your body in relation to material. And your work is also interdisciplinary, for Pli you collaborated with visual artist and paper engineer Alexis Mérat and visual artist and set designer Domitille Martin. And considering all these aspects of your practice, what defines your work as circus? Like still, you define your work as circus, and can you tell us about that?

Inbal [00:02:43] I think in a way it’s that’s the question of how do we define today’s circus, the contemporary circus, the creation circus. We have lots of definitions of modern or even classical circus before. But for me, and it’s a very, very personal definition, I define circus as a place of meeting and connecting. Today we see that all boundaries between arts forms, but not only art forms, about practices, about some cultures, like, as I said, I’m coming from Israel, I’m living in France, but at the moment I’m in Greece. We have all those connections of places, cultures, practices. And for me, circus is a place where things can meet and gather together. And there is a place for everything. There is a place for dance, there is a place for music, there is a place for theatre, there is a place for sports and sport practice. I think it’s for me it’s a little bit the heritage that we have also from the traditional circus. You know, it was a place where there was a space for kinds of weird stuff, some people or phenomenons that didn’t found their place in society in different places, or people just doing very exceptional things that weren’t yet inside the discipline of I am doing vertical rope or I’m doing trapeze. People were just very exposing a very exceptional abilities, and those were the places that people gathered around. So for me, it’s a little bit of heritage that I take from traditional circus, but in out these days and for me a circus, it’s a place where all those things can meet in an engaged way. Still, I think what something which is very important for me is the engagement of the body, whatever that means. We can we can ask what it means also. But yes, So first of all, for me, a circus, it’s a meeting point, it’s a circle point. So that’s one thing. And of course, what interests me is how to combine a technique of climbing on aerial movement with bands, with martial arts, with fine arts and visual arts, with improvisation, with the inner work, as these things are touching so many aspects. And the second thing, what you said about the field where I’m working is somewhere between the spectacular and the intimate. It brings me to ask what is spectacular today or what’s what’s in the circus artists bring us to to want to share with the public because we have our abilities. You know, we kind of we learn so much, we train so much. We’re a kind of superheroes in our body, like, you know, like a very athletes, a strong, flexible. We we work all our life for that. But then finally, when what we come what I want and people in my project and also people around me we come on stage or to make art and what what do we want to share the we want to share this kind of superhero that we are or the very human that we are. And this place between being very, very human like everybody and also have this a little bit superhuman abilities. This is something that I found really interesting because it’s open possibilities. In one time, it can make lots of them a very close empathy and connection with the public because we’re the same we we want to share our vulnerability. We want to share how we’re also fragilities or some moments which are fragile or some moments where we are uncertain. We just we don’t want to share just “look at this. I am perfect.” Like a little bit older circus can have this style. We use those tools, but we want to you to share something which is profoundly human and that connects people. So for me, in a way, this is the contemporary spectacular to being able already in our society where also fragility is still like a kind of taboo. We need also in our daily life, we need to be kind of perfect, perfect a bit, the machine being very functional and everything. So how can we bring something which is so superhuman but then sometimes so much human and we can build the bridge between those two things?

Gabrielle [00:08:35] Yeah. And that’s one of the reasons I find your work so exciting, because it is reframing what we would expect from circus or maybe some kind of traditional expectations around what, yeah, what is spectacular and seeing bodies doing things that we could never imagine ourselves doing, which is still can be beautiful for metaphors of surpassing our limitations, but also often creates this distance between the performer and the audience and, and, and just maybe limits the kind of range of of expression within the form, within the discipline.

Inbal [00:09:15] You know, you can you can think about spectacular hour, like doing a triple Salto and you can think about spectacular about climbing on paper. What do I share when I do a triple Salto? I share lots of things. When I do a triple Salto, it’s I don’t diminuate. What do I share in this situation and what do they share in this situation? They are both spectacular.

Gabrielle [00:09:40] And that kind of brings me into this next question I have for you, because you’ve shared that your work became more interesting when a part of your body was injured and then healed, than when it was perfect, and that it’s in this kind of vulnerability that I find a different strength. And I think this is especially liberating in the circus context, which is usually obsessed with perfection. And you’ve spoken about this a bit, you know, the kind of relationship with the body that’s a machine or with how we’re living our lives as being machine like and having these expectations. And you talk about the process of embracing this different strength. So can you explain a little bit more about that and how this informs your work?

Inbal [00:10:23] Of course. So I start from the very personal stories that when I was in a circus school in France, so I was really like I was realising my dream being a circus school and I was really training so hard and don’t listening to my body so much about needing… Yeah, you know, when we are in circus school we are like “aaahh” and it’s, it’s amazing also. And then I got injured quite seriously. I broke the cartilage of my shoulder in a way that I was really needed an operation. So I stopped. I waited for the operation. I did all the physiotherapy and all this process was like one year and a half in which I couldn’t hang on my right shoulder at all. And this is I was doing a vertical rope or aerial dance. And, you know, it’s a quite dramatic to say for an aerial artist, you cannot hang on your shoulder like, this is my base tool, ike people are walking, I’m hanging. I had two choices. One choice was to stop, to make a big stop and not working on the for all the time of this injury. What’s the circus school proposed me to do is said, “okay, you can go back to Israel and you come back when you’re healed.” And the other option which I choose was to continue coming and to continue working and see what can I do differently or what is possible even inside the situation. Because still it was like my shoulders, but I have also the rest of my body. And for me, mentally speaking, it was not possible to stop because when we stop, this is not also only body impact. There is lots of psychological and mental impacts and we should talk about more about that, what are the mental impacts of injury and circus or of this seeking of perfection also? So I didn’t have these beautiful ideas of, yes, I will do things differently. I just was I must come back to the studio day after day, because if not, I got depressed and then I come and I cannot hang. So I must search other things, you know? So it came from a really need of very basically things. So I started searching and seeing, how can I move differently? Can I hang, you know, very practically, can I hang from different parts of my body, which is not the the shoulders? Can I hang from my knees? Can I hang from my toes? Can I can how can I work with the rope without hanging? How can I work with the objects? Maybe the rope doesn’t must be hanged. Maybe I can work with it differently. You know, I was really. I had, like, one year and a half. I must do something. So I needed to find other things. And at that moment, I also came back to my background in dance and in the fine arts, because I was doing cinema and the visual arts in my high school. My mother is a fine artist, so I had some like really, I had the chance, I had some more tools. So I said, okay, I cannot hang? Can I, can I can I drop with the rope? Okay. The rope is a line. Can I draw with it? Can I can I open a old rope and see what there is inside and try to start? And, you know, and I had this freedom because I was in the frame of circus school, and still I could do whatever, not whatever I wanted but finally I found it’s like a very big chance that I were I was not able to do what everybody do. And that was a tragedy for me at the moment. I was like, “Oh, I am going to lose all my dream of being a professional circus artist or being in superior school. I just do my small stuff.” Then as of today, I said like, “Wow, had so much luck that I was not able to do what everybody do because it’s the highway, you know, you do you, you, you do your training, you do your figures, You do what everybody do in Instagram that you saw from da-da-da then to go to the audition to… And there is very small possibilities to go beside because it’s not on our what we said “ah, this is valuable” and in this way I found it so much richness and from the moment that I acknowledged this, this that’s “okay. This is by having a limitation. This is by having an imperfection thing.” I found something which is so valuable and it is a much more unique. And, you know, I invented like a new technique for rope. Invented, I developed that I think you saw in the scene, which is like the knitting rope. I never saw someone doing it. Maybe someone is doing it else in the world. And actually it comes from the research that I couldn’t hang, so I was needed to be sitting on or having my weight in different parts and not just hanging on my hands. And that made me develop a whole new technique that finally everybody were interesting at that, much more than if I was doing my pirouette on the rope. So like, okay, wow, it’s I thought I’m the like the worst in the class. But finally, everybody want to see those new things. This made me a lot of changing my point of view of of what is this seeking of perfection? Because perfection is we want to be like someone else that we see. This is like a little bit some kind of copy paste process. We I’m sorry if this is my very point of view, but we are never perfect. We are a human. Like the fact that we are unique as as a persons makes that we are not perfect. And this is through our places of break and perfect of non-perfections that we have our very special offer that we can bring to art, to the world, to our body, to circus. And I’m working with a student. She’s handicapped in one arm and she’s doing rope. We are like about to invent a new way to do rope. So it’s non perfection. This handicap make like open amazing field of inventing and finding some new stuff. This is the moment I said, okay, perfection is really nice. Like, you know, society do it so much good for so long. But actually what’s art bring what’s what’s make us some empathy or connection is the places that we are not perfect.

Gabrielle [00:18:14] And original, right but unique, you know, demonstrating an expression that’s unique to to who we are and who we are in our full selves. And I think definitely in order to make circus more diverse and more accessible, because there’s often a critique that it’s not very diverse, because if we’re if to us circus means a form where people are doing a certain level of acrobatics and have a gymnastics base, well not everybody has that training from a very young age. And if that’s how we define circus, then it doesn’t leave room for other forms of exploration that ultimately, I think, adds so much to the form. And I think it’s really interesting because there’s relatively few circus artists in Canada with in comparison to the amount of work that exists for circus arts. When you compare it to other disciplines like dance, where there’s a lot more dancers compared to how much paid work that is for dancers in this country. And so I think what happens is there’s a lot of validation that circus artists can receive and also a livelihood which is incredibly necessary and important. And at the same time, I think means that there’s less incentive often for circus artists to explore in a way that’s really different from those and an expression of circus that aligns with what will sell and what will get work and what will provide a more immediate validation. I want to know, though, about your therapeutic circus, because I know that you’ve developed a teaching method for therapeutic circus. And yeah, to me, therapeutic and circus don’t don’t come together based on my own experience as a circus artist in the past. So I’m really curious about about your work there.

Inbal [00:20:12] First of all, I must say, I’m not a therapist. I’m I’m not I don’t have this studies, but I was working actually started when I was doing my civil service in Israel in a boarding school with youth at risk. And it was already a moment that I did circus for a few years. But I was very interesting about social work and all kinds of impact that we can bring to society and to people’s life. And I noticed that when I do Circus just with the kids that I was working with, they were going through many things. Like if I was doing lots of like a hand, not hand to hand, but acro yoga or acro porter what we call in France. So they needed to trust me. And if in the beginning they didn’t trust me so little by little, that’s what the trust has built between us. Just because they give me their weights and their hands and they know that if I will drop like, if I will not hold them, they will drop. But if they will not hold me, I will drop. So there is like this very equal relationship. Or when I proposed them to do some rope, it was very, very basic things. But I saw them going through their fear and being able to be there for with with them and going through this fear with them and finally getting somewhere, which is so valuable because, you know, like youth at risk, they used to have, you’re not used to hear… You’re not good at that. You’re not good at school. Your family is problematic. You know, so many problems. And suddenly they do something that other people in school don’t do or, you know, something which is exceptional. So to see how what’s the impact of this on their values, on some psychological, more point of view or on that than dynamic in a group of doing like a pyramid together. So being able to collaborate and to listen to everybody and to do the same thing, the same movement, to throw someone on the air at the same time, you know, some listening that you can do only from the body. I saw the impacts because I was there guide, daily guide at the boarding school. So I saw, okay, so now with the surface, they trust me more. So when I come to wake them up and I said, Listen, you should wake up. So this is like, okay, I believe you. It’s going to be a good day today, maybe. I saw I saw very personal impacts inside. So this is something that I wanted to develop with my partner at the time. And slowly, slowly I started to work to develop some workshops that use circus as a tool or for those kinds of things, for confidence, for going through fears, for having dealing with failure or with success and value a situation. Also everybody in society, I think it is something which is so common. We all fail, we all afraid first and we all react in some ways when we are afraid, we all have issues with confidence, like it’s very human, all that, but especially for like a special Publix as a boarding school, Youth at Risk Psychiatric Hospital, where I worked a lot these days in France, I’m doing a project in a jail nearby Paris. I think what is interesting is that the fact that we are not doing a therapy, what a circus. It’s fun. It’s fun. And this is like really nice at the end when we get to do that, this exercise and actually not a lot of work, we can do really beautiful things. And on the way, going through group dynamics, getting with fear. So this is something that I feel circus can really bring to society and to everybody’s life, even without being a circus artist or even without being just a public. You know, we all have a body. We all work with weights, we all work with different people. How does those things combined together that can make us have new experiences and what can it teach us on our life and makes us the possibility to act differently? With our bodies and with those subjects in our life. Finally.

Gabrielle [00:25:23] In Pli, you work with paper and you’ve talked about how the paper manipulates you as much as you manipulate it. And while working in duality with objects is common practice for circus artists, working with a material like paper is not. And can you expand on the process of creating with this material its dramaturgy and finding balance with it?

Inbal [00:25:43] Maybe I start and what I told you before, what what I mean, the fact that the paper manipulates me because we can imagine about like what is to manipulate a tool or apparatus in circus like balls, like clubs, like she will like even rope. But what it means is that the objects impact me and that I need to adapt myself to the objects. So this is what I told you before. That paper that we use in Pli. It is never the same from one performance to another. The paper on which I am climbing on. It’s combined from many paper bands. It’s very impacted, in fact, by many creatures like the humidity of the space because paper is like sponging humidity or having very dried space because of like the warming of the of the space. What is the height? So how much a place it takes in the air? How did it how did we build it on stage as we are building it on stage? Maybe one day we were a little bit stressed, so there was a little bit different how we arrange it on the space and so on. The paper is different from one performance to another, which must makes me very, very attentive and very in the in the constant listening to the paper because it’s such a fragile and non evident material to go on because it can break. It’s not that we found like an unbreakable paper and we’re working with it now. We do break it and you know, I’m climbing and breaking it in the same time. So for having this balance between resistance and breaking and fragility, I must be in a very listening all the time and I need to adapt myself. If one place is already a little bit start breaking, I know I cannot hold it anymore. I need to find another place to put my weight or to go above. And I’m all the time in this reading of the situation and kind of improvising with some tools that I know, but kind of adapting myself all the time. And actually this is the paper that tells me, what can I do and what can I not do? So I need to listen. And and sometimes it’s really like that for the sound because I felt like *rip* okay, here I can, okay, like, here I put weight, okay, I can go. This is something that not happened, like when I came back to work on the cotton rope. So, like, wow, it’s so funny. It doesn’t speaks to me. Like, how can I dialogue with. It’s like, talk to me, Dude. It was weird? Like someone It’s like it’s a monologue and not the dialogue. And I go to used to this dialogue. This bring me some to to to some thoughts of the dramaturge artists in Europe in in Belgium that her name is Bauke Lievens. So she’s talking about the way that we use objects and apparatus in the circus is very connected to the way that we use object in our occidental society. Like mostly we create objects to our service to make humans more powerful, more comfortable, more easy to make stuff like the objects are here for our service. And in a way, we we can see that many times. Also, when circus like I go on the rope for being in the air. What? What is more important? Me being on the air or the rope? You know, this is a little bit our relationship with this is quite sad, but with nature today, this in a very general way. The society we take, we use nature for our needs. We use trees for our to build. We use rocks to build our house. We use petrol to for our cars. We we have this thing of “how can I use it, how can it be for my use?” And this is kind of a very specific relationship between humans and our environment. And I feel with what we do with this work of paper that I cannot do whatever I want. If I will do whatever I want, I will, I will fall. This is the end of the game, you know? So if I want to be in this relationship, which is quite fragile, I must listen more than talk. I must ask the paper. Okay. What can I do today? I must said, “I think I would do that, oh, no, finally not. I do another thing.” Finally. You know, the paper is also much bigger than me. With the lights, it’s much more beautiful. It’s have such a big place that I want to give him this place. I don’t want to be. Hey, this is the paper. He is just here for me that I will climb. Now I want to resonate on this value and this this space. And to see that it is possible to create a new relationship, which is much more based on listening, about dialogue. I think this is, in a way, what I feel that we bring with Pli and the paper work.

Gabrielle [00:31:57] Absolutely. And I think there’s a quote from your collaborator, Alexis Mérat, where she says, “The search for balance is the place where we examine our relationship to ourselves and the world,” as I think that encapsulates a lot of what you’ve just spoken to. I’m so looking forward, so much looking forward to welcoming you and your team and Pli at the 2024 PuSh Festival February 2nd to 3rd at the Playhouse. It will be a beautiful space to to showcase and yeah really highlight this beautiful work. So thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today.

Inbal [00:32:33] Thank you, Gabrielle. I’m really up to that. So happy to come to Vancouver and to meet the local community and the circus community and the PuSh Festival.

Gabrielle [00:32:46] PuSh Play is produced by Ben Charland and Tricia Knowles and supported by our incredible community outreach coordinator, Julian Legere. New episodes with Gabrielle Martin are released every Monday and Thursday. For more information on PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, please visit pushfestival.ca and follow us on social media @PuShFestival.